lifting heads, straightening backs.

kathyescobar equality, ex good christian women, healing, identity, women in ministry 4 Comments

lifted heads and straightened backs

Sometimes I get calls from women asking for help to get out of an abusive relationship. Skittish, scared, and filled with shame, they reach out and share their story. It’s so brave.

Some are rich, some are poor. Some are educated, others have never graduated from high school. Some have kids while others don’t. Some have husbands, others never have. Some are leaders, others are followers. Some call Jesus their God, others lost their faith a long time ago. Their circumstances might be different but their stories are the same. The thread that binds them together is that life circumstances and relationships have somehow stripped them of their worth, dignity, and voice.

They’ve been devalued, silenced, used, controlled, diminished to the point where their heads are hung low and their backs are bent.

I have heard some say that there’s not a war on women. They claim that is rhetoric that paints the situation to be worse than it really is. These people don’t know these women in real life, as friends, as sisters, as daughters.

There’s no doubt, women have made great strides over the past chunk of years, finding greater equality in many professions and gaining ground on freedom. But underneath the surface a deep and insidious system still exists that is tilted against women. Sexual addictions and exploitation of women are rampant. Our safehouses–from downtown to the suburbs–are overflowing with women fleeing abusive relationships. Local social service agencies are overwhelmed with desperate women struggling to feed their families with no support from their kids’ fathers. Most all the women I know are working more and getting paid less. Many churches continue to perpetuate “women are under men” structures and methodologies.

Jesus says that the Kingdom of God is available to us now, and that part of our responsibility as Christ-followers is to participate in bringing heaven to earth.

To me, that means we’re called to be the lifter of heads and the straighteners of backs.

To call each other to be all we were created to be.

To nurture a spirit of equality, justice, mercy, love, and hope in the spaces and places we find ourselves in.

To restore dignity where it’s been lost

As a pastor and leader in Denver I am often saddened at how many women and people on the margins are experiencing oppression, depression, and disconnection from the kind of life Jesus said was possible here, now.

I remember in 2006 when a dear friend told me honestly, “Kathy, you are in an emotionally abusive relationship with this church.” As a woman who worked with abused women, it feels crazy to think I couldn’t see it, but the truth is that I just expected that is how I should be treated in church leadership. I was told I should be grateful, that I had it better than most women in the church, that the grass wasn’t greener (it is).

Honestly, I believed them. Until that same friend, who is good at lifting heads and straightening backs, told me I deserved better.

That I mattered.

That there was another possibility for me.

It started me on the bumpy path toward greater and greater freedom, a path that has lead me to intersect with a wide range of women who feel stuck, alone, and longing for something better. From suburban women suffering from loneliness and depression in their beautiful homes to mommies lined up at food banks, women are struggling to believe they matter.

Shame is a powerful weapon of darkness that tells so many that they are not good enough, worthy enough, you-name-it enough.

And a significant part of the problem is that “the church” has perpetuated some of the problem. It sometimes is one of the most insecure places  on earth, cementing many damaging messages instead of freeing us from them.

At this point I honestly don’t think words mean anything anymore in the conversation on equality. Telling women or anyone on the margins that “they matter to God” won’t make a difference on its own.

What seems to be making the biggest difference is actually seeing and experiencing something different.

When we see women freely telling their stories and using their gifts, something shifts.

When we see other women who have found their way out of bad situations and are experiencing hope, it gives us hope, too.

When we experience men as safe people, as friends, willing to help and listen and care, deep wounds of neglect or abuse can begin to heal.

When we begin to be treated with dignity and respect, our head begins to lift and our backs begin to straighten.

Our heads begin to lift and our back begins to straighten.

I think that’s what the church is supposed to participate in doing for all people who know what it feels like to be diminished, disrespected, and undervalued (not just women)–helping to lift heads and straighten backs.

Consistent with Jesus’ bent toward action instead of words, the way toward something this is not to talk about something different but to live into something different. Equality is definitely a verb.

My hope is that we will keep intentionally work at modeling a better reflection of the body of Christ where both sexes are valued equally and called to freedom, where women’s voices are honored as much as men’s, where power is diffused and shared across all shapes, sizes, colors, and experiences. That we live as free as we can as equals, friends, brothers and sisters, co-creaters of the kingdom of God alongside each other instead of under or over the other.

To help each other lift our heads and straighten our backs.


ps: I am grateful to co-pastor with my friend who was the one who told me another way was possible. This Thursday he pulled together a Women’s Listening Party, a place to listen and learn what it’s like for women in the church. If you live in Denver and are able to participate, know you are welcome!

so much beauty despite the thorns.

kathyescobar church stuff, incarnational, jesus is cool 10 Comments

despite the thorns there's still so much beautyWell, that was kind of wild. My little post on narcissism and the church was the #2 most-hit blog post in carnival history (#1 is ex-good-christian-women, ha ha).  I am so glad because it means that people’s eyes are being opened to this issue in church culture. Hopefully we will actually let what we see guide us toward different choices about who we give our money, time, and talents to.

Meanwhile, I have felt this sense of deep sadness the past few days. So much mis-used power. So much blind-sheep-following out of sincere intentions. So much damage. Oh, how I hope we can do what I said at the end of that post–get healthier, get healthier, get healthier.

And sometimes when so many hard stories emerge, I can easily forget that despite all the jacked-up-ness of power-ego-narcissist-driven church systems, there are also still so many simple, humble, beautiful, amazing, kind, ordinary, lovely, incredible, under-the-radar, unplugged, real, raw, vulnerable people living out their faith in countless ways.

Despite the thorns, there’s still so much beauty.

Even though there’s so much to cry and yell about related to church, there are also many things worth celebrating and honoring and appreciating.

Today, I needed to remember the beauty amidst the mess. Otherwise, I just feel too hopeless.

So I thought I’d share some of the beauty I can think of off the top of my head–people and places and glimpses of things that are noble and pure and true and good and alive in the kingdom of God.

Beauty amidst the thorns.

I think of my friend Hugh, who trudges through the snow to open up a hospitality house where people on the streets in Raleigh can find warmth and friendship and a place-to-be-loved.  And my friends at Dry Bones Denver who love kids on the street deeply through the years. Ken in Portland, who for 30 years has been calling out people’s dignity  through simple friendship with no big budget or a single bit of flash.

And Luke and Rebecca, dreaming of a new community in Everett where all are welcomed and included and valued and treasured and women can lead and the marginalized have a voice and beauty is valued.

Or the Justice and Mercy Legal Aid Clinic, where my awesome husband is a lawyer alongside other humble, kind, passionate justice advocates. It’s a place where women who are victims of violence are getting premier legal aid and are treated with dignity and respect.

Then I remember my friends who bring water and clothes and friendship to people on the street in San Diego week after week after week. They left the confines of church years ago to find life and faith in tangibly being the body of Christ.

Upstairs from The Refuge is a food bank that opens its doors week after week after week with a completely and totally volunteer staff. No salaries, just a commitment to feed people in the name of Jesus.

In Fort Worth my sweet friends gather in all kinds of different ways to break bread and share pain and celebrate life together without a church building or a big budget or a strategic plan beyond “being together.”

I think of the male pastors I work alongside with who gave up money and benefits and security and accolades to cultivate life in our little weird community because they care about people more than power.

Or my dear friend Suzann whose life is given to friendship with the Palestinians. No bells, no whistles, no organizational wow.  Just relationship. And that’s always the foundation for justice.

Then there’s Ryan and his team of ordinary people who build long-term redemptive relationships with friends on the streets in Capital Hill.  Network Cafe has been offering coffee and friendship day after night and night after day in a little house or over 30 years.

And all the young people I am seeing online whose hearts are on fire for justice and change on behalf of Black Lives Matter.  They aren’t waiting for permission; they are living out their call in simple, organic, profound ways.

I smile as I read through a pile of emails from the interfaith group I am part of, leaders of all faiths standing in support with our Muslim friends on Wednesday night as part of a prayer vigil in Denver on behalf of peace.

The true pastors I know who love people whether they are paid or not, or have a degree or not, or are part of a church staff or not.

Oh, and so many sweet and simple “churches” in all kinds of shapes and sizes with no budgets, no flash, no whiz, no bang, just kind people who find ways to gather around tables, in parks, in coffee shops, in recovery meetings, in church buildings, in all-kinds-of-weird-ways to see others and be seen.  To love and be loved.

And really I should have said this first–the people everywhere with no titles or positions or roles-with-recognition who brought meals, who dropped by the hospital, who picked up a single mom’s kids, who shared their story at a recovery meeting that gave someone else a little hope, who cleaned someone’s house, who filled up someone’s gas tank, who tutored someone else’s kid, who called someone on their heart, who gave a rip when no one else would, who stopped to help the man on the side of the road, who hugged someone who needed a hug, who stood up against a bully, who offered grace in some small, simple, beautiful way.

Yeah, there’s so much beauty amidst the thorns.

I hope we can see some of it today.

The sweet, simple kingdom breaking through.

Jesus with skin on.

The image of God reflected in the least likely of places.

The strength of the weak.

Kind, humble leaders in all kinds of different ways.

Real power. Real juice. Real people.

I would love to hear where you’re seeing it, too.

Peace to you this weekend, Kathy

a thing or two about narcissism (+ church).

kathyescobar church stuff, crazy making, faith shifts, injustice, rants, relationships 59 Comments


For a lot of years now I have been journeying with a lot of women who have been in marriages or relationships with narcissists. I’m not talking about plain old self-absorbedness, of which we all have a touch of in different ways. I’m talking about something far more insidious and confusing, too–people with true blue Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD) or just-plain-real-and-deep narcissism that makes people around them feel crazy, unempowered, abused, and emotionally stripped.

Several years ago The Refuge hosted a gathering for women who had difficult ex-husbands or partners to gain strength and tools for navigating life for their children. It was an amazing night, and my brave friend–whose ex has NPD–shared some practical survival tools that she has tried to learn and also teach her kids as they navigate life with this kind of craziness over the long haul. On my way to the event, I asked one of my dearest therapist friends what one word of advice she had for these women.

Here’s what she said–“Tell them you just can’t ever win… (and they’re not crazy)”

The internet has been buzzing over the past few months with back and forth around this issue with a well-known emergent author and his ex-wife. There are plenty of people writing about that so I am not going to add to that mix. I sincerely hope that some of these oh-so-important questions get explored around these issues of abuse and what it takes for victims to be heard.

What I wanted to focus on was raising awareness on the insidiousness of narcissism in church culture–and how little we ever do about it.

In fact, we feed it.

Almost all of the men married to my friends were pastors or Christian leaders of some sort. Charismatic, powerful, strong, magnetic, charming, bright, and engaging, most everyone in their outer circle think they can do no wrong. In fact, they are often worshipped, elevated to higher and higher levels of ministry and power, and considered “amazing” by so many.

Those in close, close relationship with them, though, experience a totally different story.

Some of you have been married to them.

Some of you have been parented by them.

Some of you have been pastored by them.

You know what I’m talking about.

You know the crazy-making. You know the emotional abuse, and sometimes the physical. You know the hero-worship and the “he would never do that’s”. You know the fear. You know the confusion. You know the exhaustion of always trying to keep the peace. You know the eggshells. You know what it feels like to be misunderstood, accused, tossed aside, ignored–not just by the narcissist, but by their churches and friends and colleagues and fans and followers.

You. Know.

For those of you on the sidelines, an average-person’s definition of Narcisstic Personality Disorder is this: Narcissistic personality disorder is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of their own importance, a deep need for admiration and a lack of empathy for others. But behind this mask of ultraconfidence lies a fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism (Mayo Clinic).

Some of the symptoms include:

  • Having an exaggerated sense of self-importance
  • Expecting to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it
  • Exaggerating your achievements and talents
  • Being preoccupied with fantasies about success, power, brilliance, beauty or the perfect mate
  • Believing that you are superior and can only be understood by or associate with equally special people
  • Requiring constant admiration
  • Having a sense of entitlement
  • Expecting special favors and unquestioning compliance with your expectations
  • Taking advantage of others to get what you want
  • Having an inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others
  • Being envious of others and believing others envy you
  • Behaving in an arrogant or haughty manner (Mayo Clinic)

I would add: “Lying. Blatant, unabashed, straight-faced lying.”

Not everyone has a full-blown personality disorder, but people in relationship with narcissists can never win, never give enough, love enough, _____ enough. Many are used to being berated and called the cause of all the problems. They know the truth but everyone on the outside only sees the good so it always feels confusing. When they begin to have boundaries or stand up for themselves or refuse to make that person the center of the universe, all hell breaks loose.

Unfortunately, many pastors and leaders are narcissists. In fact, some of the above symptoms are what get them to the top of their food chains and help them ascend to power. It’s fascinating–and scary, really.

We love our kings, queens, and royalty.

We love people who appear strong and squared away and confident.

We love people who charm us and sprinkle fairy dust on us.

We love people we can follow.

We love to hang on people’s every word.

I do believe there’s a radical shift happening right now in church-dom, where a lot more people are unwilling to give themselves over to strong powerful leaders in the same way. They won’t tolerate the bullsh*t any longer. I’m so glad for it.

However, we’ve got a long way to go to breaking our addiction to strong, narcissistic leaders. They still are the fastest builders of a lot of churches, the fastest creators of a following, the fastest risers to the top.

My heart and hope is that the scales keep falling off our eyes when we become more and more aware of the insidious of narcissism in so much of modern Christian culture.

It’s time to see more than what’s on the surface. 

To get sober from our addiction to celebrity and power.

To break the spell.

To get healthier.

To be drawn to humility. 

To believe victims on the underside of the craziness.

To get healthier. 

To get healthier.

To get healthier. 

the same minds that got is into the problem can’t get us out

kathyescobar church stuff, dreams, equality, injustice, women in ministry 7 Comments

einstein quoteOne of the hardest things for me is when I see talented, amazing, gifted, educated, passionate, articulate, creative women who over the years have found that they have no place left in the church.

They waited.

They tried.

They gave it their all.

They showed up again and again and again and again.

And in the end, the system just didn’t value them. Didn’t embrace their gifts. Didn’t ask them to be part of leadership beyond support and helping roles. Didn’t “get them.” Didn’t make room. Didn’t care that they had so much to bring. Didn’t bother to wonder why they left.

As I was sitting across from a friend in Phoenix this past weekend, I couldn’t help but feeling a sad, deep pit in my stomach as I heard her share her resignation that after years of trying, she really had decided to move on. That her dream of pastoring a church was over, and she was making peace with the reality that it was time to quit hoping for power-held-by-the-men to change or for the “emerging church” to be the answer or for someone to see what she had to bring to the body. Instead, she is looking forward to nurturing her art and finding life on the other side, attending church once in a while but giving up on the possibility of really being part of one again.

She’s not the only one.

I know so many amazing talented women who tried–I mean really tried–and are finding life and passion and purpose outside of the confines of church.

I realize there has been some movement over the past chunk of years, and even since I became a full-time pastor 11 years ago, more women are sitting at leadership tables than ever before. I am so glad for that!

But while things are slowly moving in the right direction, we have a long, long, and long way to go.

Most every church structure I know of–even in some churches I know are really truly trying–are filled with patriarchy beyond what they even know.

Power still begets power, and that means that those with it play with others that have it. Deals and hires and programs and plans get made on the golf course, and let’s just be honest–for the most part women are never invited to those games (11 years and hasn’t happened yet, ha ha).

They’re always looking for the right teaching pastor or leader with experience but because women rarely have the chance to do those things, it’s hard to meet the qualifications even though their gifts and talents are bubbling underneath.

People lead with friends and since we have so little skills and encouragement for women and men to be true friends, alongside each other in close and healthy relationship with each other, men keep asking their male friends to come plant with them, lead with them, play with them.

The result–even though the wheels are still spinning and the church is still alive, we also know it’s dying, too.

This is part of the reason so many women (and other marginalized groups, too) are becoming more and more “done” with church (but they still deeply care about so many important things). Inequality and completely-imbalanced-power and unhealthiness everywhere-we-look is part of the reason why.

As I was riding home on the plane Monday night, I couldn’t help but think–the minds that got us into this mess can’t get us out.

Yet, the church leadership conferences are still packed with male voices (with a few females and people of color sprinkled in). The reading lists missional networks pass around are still filled with male authors (publishers don’t like to publish material that won’t sell, and little known female practictioners, even with amazing & innovative ideas, just aren’t going to get church-leadership kinds of deals). Pulpits rarely have women in them in so many churches, even the new most supposedly progressive ones.

Church leaders want new wine, but often keep trying to put new wine into old wineskins.

We just don’t make proper spaces and places and platforms for creative minds to come forward and participate and truly collaborate in change.

I am glad to know some really amazing people planting new trees with good seeds. I also know some other leaders working their tails off to change their structures to empower women. It always makes me so happy.

However, throw tomatoes at me if you want to because it needs to be said: they are still few and far between.

Patriarchy is alive and well.

Women’s gifts are still so undervalued in the wider church.

We keep trying to solve this bleeding-church-problem with the same minds that created it.

“On earth as it is in heaven” is pretty rare even though Jesus said it was possible.

The truth is that the solution is not “out there” somewhere in the next cool conference or a new book or a new church coaching network.

It’s available now–right in front of everyone’s eyes: Women, people of color, LBGQT men and women, the poor, the marginalized, the young, the voices we’ve never heard.

Yep, they have the minds and ideas and hearts and passions and imagination and practices to get us out of this mess.

The question is will the church be smart enough to let them?

in my living room: choices

kathyescobar healing, relationships, spiritual formation, the refuge 6 Comments

i choose to

One of my favorite times of the week is our Wednesday House of Refuge group that gathers at our house. A fun, open group, it’s been going since the beginning of The Refuge, almost 9 years now, and it’s always one of the most interesting times of my week. We have a potluck, and it’s wild and chaotic, with kids running to and fro and people eating and laughing and catching up. After dinner, the kids go downstairs and the grownups participate in spiritual conversation, which I always call “Spiritual Show and Tell.” Different people sign up at the beginning of the year to facilitate so it’s an amazing variety of perspectives and topics and styles and conversations.

I have written about a few nights before and called them “in my living room” (I always have high hopes to share more of these but like so many other things I never get around to it). However, a few weeks ago it was a cold and blizzardy Colorado night. Our group was small, we started late, but it turned out to be one of the greatest little tools I have learned in a long time, so I thought I’d toss out my takeaway.

My friend shared briefly about the idea of choice and how she was learning to reframe how she viewed parts of her life. Some of these ideas are an extension of Non-Violent Communication (one of my favorite skills from 2014 that I always wish I applied, ha ha).

We all have choices.

And we make choices based on what we value.

And there are consequences for those choices.

The tool was simple: My friend asked us to consider some areas of our lives where we were making a sacrifice or hard choices or in a difficult situation and fill in the blank:

I choose to __________

because I value ______________

even if it means _________________

This can cross so many areas of our lives–relationships, work, faith, life, family, play.

We make choices, positive and negative ones, because of what we value, and there are consequences, both positive and negative ones, based on those choices.

For me, the best place to start is to consider an area where I struggle, which feels tricky, difficult, and is causing me the most confusion or strife.

How can I reframe it in a way that helps free me instead of trap me?

A few came to mind:

I choose to dedicate myself to filling our lives with lots of adventure, fun, and busyness with our kids and friends because I value connection and living-in-the-now, even if it means my house is messy and unorganized and I don’t have a lot of white space in our week.

I choose to be part of co-leading our crazy community, The Refuge, with my friends even though some days it’s brutally hard and tiring and I want to run for the hills because I value collaboration and healing community and kingdom-living, even it if means sacrificing efficiency and money and so many of the ways “I would do it” if I was all by myself.

I choose to walk a path of faith toward greater mystery, and freedom, and diversity because I value growth, integrity, and honesty, even if it means that I don’t fit into some traditional Christian systems anymore and experience disapproval or feel like an outsider.

I choose to truly honor the budget that Jose and I put together and said we’d follow because I value and respect him as my teammate and partner, even if it means that I have to give up what I would do (yes, spend whatever I want and run us into the ground financially!).

Oh, there are so many more, and these are just my rambles for today, and I am quite sure there are many deeper ones I need to keep exploring.

I wanted to share it with you all because if you are like me, sometimes it helps to have some help.

For me, some of the most simple ideas provide me with the best shifts.

We processed it at our advocates training, too, and I loved the thoughts on how it can be helpful when trying to untangle reality and how we can respond to it.

As a person who sometimes feels “trapped” by my life, by my kids, by The Refuge craziness, by all-kinds-of-things-that-make-me-feel-like-I-am-stuck, part of my healing has been remembering that I do, indeed, always have choices. I may feel trapped, but I am not trapped.

What are you choosing because you value it and what are the consequences?

Or what choice do you need to make and own the consequences?

I know I have a lot to keep thinking about, both current choices and ones I know I need to make.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


ps: I also have a new post up this week for SheLoves Magazine, for the Down We Go column I write there (love those people!). It’s called Small is Plenty.  I personally choose to not focus on growing The Refuge in numbers the way churches normally do because I value real-and-raw-and-long-term-in-the-flesh-relationships, even if it means we look weird & awkward & inefficient.